terça-feira, junho 27, 2006

116) A trajetoria intelectual de Robert Skidelsky

Vejam em meu blog Diplomatizzando, no post 520, uma curta biografia de Lord Skidelsky, e referências a seus muitos trabalhos.

Transcrevo aqui abaixo o que me pareceu uma excelente síntese sobre sua formação e desenvolvimento intelectual.
Neste link.

From History to Economics and Back: A Personal and Intellectual Journey
(Warwick Retirement Lecture by Robert Skidelsky, 31 May 2006)

When I was eight my father gave me a history book - a history of the world. As it happened, I was living in China at the time, and my best friend was a Japanese boy called Atsuo Tsukada. He records me –this is in print so it must be true – as saying ‘’We have to know history, Alex. See this book? It explains the whole thing....I’m going to be a historian’. He also records me as saying other things, such as that his emperor should be shot as a war criminal.

This was the start of my love affair with history.I was particularly fascinated by dates, in the way mathematicians are with numbers.There was something immensely satisfying about compiling lists of dates. I knew history started in 4004 BC. precisely. I memorised all the kings and emperors from Menes of Egypt through to modern times and could tell you exactly when they reigned.

I must have read that book my father gave me dozens of times and, in fact, it fell to pieces. It was followed by others. Worse still, I started to write history books. They poured out of me from the ages of 9-13, histories of the world, histories of ancient times, histories of the Norman Conquest. Never again was I to find writing history so easy, and reading it such an unalloyed pleasure.

The magic of history was that it enabled me to escape from my present. My family circumstances condemned me to wander –from Manchuria where I was born, to England, then back to China, then to America, then back to England, all before the age of ten. History added an additional spatial as well as a temporal dimension to this wandering across continents.

The ability to travel through time and space –the liberation from the prison of the present and the local - still seems to me the greatest benefit which history gives. ‘The past is a foreign country –they do things differently there’ L.P.Hartley famously opens his novel The Go Between. History is the passport to this foreign country.

Practitioners of the exact sciences often pooh-pooh history’s inexactness. It’s just ‘one damn thing after another’ or, as Churchill is supposed to have said at a dinner party: ‘This pudding has no theme’.

But actually history does, in a different way, just what economics does: it offers a standard by which to judge contemporary arrangements, only this standard is set in the past, not the future, and consists of facts not models. I came to believe that not only did they do things differently in the past, but often better.

But this liberating touch is also a trap. Historians are inevitably disposed to view the present as a repetition of the past, and thus to the view that the past can never be overcome.. It was Gibbon who said that history is nothing but a record of the ‘crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind’. This was admittedly written before our civilisation had acquired a strong sense of Progress. No historian today would say that we are condemned to repeat the past, certainly not in any simple sense. They would acknowledge that we have areas of freedom to make our own history. But the historian’s tendency is still to believe that this freedom exists within the confines of what has already happened.

One can see this vividly in today’s rampant discussion in Washington of where and how the United States fits into previous patterns of ‘empire’. Is it an ‘empire in denial’ as Niall Ferguson says? Is it a hegemon in transition to empire as Charles Maier believes? And the same is true of the European Union. It seems less than a federation, but more than a confederation. The idea that something new may be happening for which we don’t yet have a name does not come easily to the historian. History is the most deficient of all social studies in the art of invention, because its ideas are all backward-looking. And though history is very important as a brake on folly in rulers-Communism wrecked the societies it ruled by its claim to be able to transcend history –it does not, as I thought at the age of eight, ‘explain the whole thing’.

In my teens, my love of history waned. It had been self-propelled and now it needed help against the interests and distractions of adolescence, which it did not get. At my independent school, I was taught history by a man who was both charming and civilised, but who was as bored by history as were the classes he instructed. He had accumulated copious lecture notes at Oxford on the Tudors and Stuarts and these he reproduced, sitting at his desk, in a deadly monotone late on Wednesday afternoons, when we had lessons after games. Perhaps he taught history at other times, but I always associate his lessons with trying to stay awake after strenuous exertions on the rugger field. .

Although I had lost my interest in history, I still found doing it ridiculously easy and fell into the fatal habit of ‘faking’ good essays, that is, filling them up with bright remarks cunningly designed to suggest a historical brain at work. This talent was enough to get me an open scholarship in history to Oxford, but not, alas, to get me the first, which everyone expected except myself. Like a successful criminal, I knew I would get caught in the end.

My intellectual life did not completely collapse at this time. One of the things I did work hard at was my writing. I thought it was much too heavy, and deliberately tried to lighten and tighten it. Re-reading some of the articles I wrote for ISIS, I can see I was laying the foundations of a style flexible enough to do the work which would be demanded of it.

I did well enough in my finals to be offered a studentship at Nuffield College. This was in 1961. That’s when I started working on history again. But now I was on to something rather different. In my third year as an undergraduate, I spent a lot of time at the Oxford Union. My best friend there was Max Mosley, and inevitably I met his father, Oswald Mosley, then in the twilight of a notorious career. He rolled his hypnotic eyes at me, and duly cast his spell, and I started reading him, and about him. Unexpectedly, most of his conversation and writing was about economics, and I realised that he was the first British political champion of Keynes. I only later came to appreciate that, drawing on hints from the early Keynes, he had defined the British unemployment problem in terms of an ‘output gap’ as early as 1925 –eleven years before the General Theory. It still seems to me a flash of genius, which later ran to waste.

I was accepted at Nuffield to write a doctoratal dissertation on how the Labour government of 1929 to 1931 failed to handle the unemployment problem. I don’t know who was more foolhardy –the Nuffield dons in accepting me to do this topic, or me in proposing it. For not only had the Oxford history honours school stopped well short of the 20th century, but I knew no economics whatsoever. Unabashed, I approached a Nuffield student from America called Marty Feldstein and asked him to explain the Keynesian system to me.’No problem’ he said, and proceeded to draw me a circular flow diagram on the blackboard, based on an actual machine Alec Cairncross had caused to be constructed at the LSE. It resembled a water-tank, with a pump at one end marked ‘ investment’ and a spigot at the other marked ‘leakages’. ‘That’s the way the world works’ Feldstein said proudly pointing to his piece of plumbing. (I should say this was the heyday of the Keynesian Revolution.)

I was riveted by this exposition, though I didn’t quite see how I was going to fit his machine into my account of the way the world worked in 1929. Perhaps economics, not history, offered the clue to the riddle. The economy was an input-output machine, and who controlled the inputs controlled the outputs. The past was waiting to be overcome. I had a nightmare about taking the machine into my oral examination, as a kind of Exhibit A, and being failed because it leaked all over the floor. At least it was clear to me that Ramsay MacDonald and the other politicians around at the time hadn’t understood the principles of this machine at all, not having had Marty Feldstein, later chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, to explain it to them.

But I didn’t actually use their ignorance as an explanation of why they had failed to cure unemployment. I said it was because people like Keynes and Lloyd George and Mosley were telling them that one didn’t have to nationalise the economy and soak the rich to get rid of unemployment, and this was a very inconvenient conclusion for socialists, even socialists of as gradual a sort as Ramsay MacDonald.

This interpretation was foisted on several generations of history unfortunate students as the ‘Skidelsky thesis’. The book, Politicians and the Slump, based on my D.Phil, came out in November 1967, the week sterling was devalued, and therefore got lots of instant reviews, trading on comparisons between now and then. The economist reviewers were mercifully kind to the atrocious economics in it, while the historians were amazed that any of their number knew anything about economics at all.

Goronwy Rees in the magazine Encounter put his finger on what was, and was to remain, distinctive, about my historical style: which was to relate political action and administration to the ‘conflict of ideas and ideologies which passionately engaged men’s minds and hearts’. I wrote about both political ideas and economic ideas, with the latter, as I saw it, dependent on the former. Politicians and the Slump challenged the notion of separating history from economics, and just as importantly separating economics from history. The notion of history without ideas was anathema to me. My history books are shot through with the ‘conflict of ideas and ideologies’. I loved ideas for their own sake, and would later agree with Keynes that ‘the world is ruled by little else’. Indeed, this curiosity about ideas made it impossible for me to stick to any discipline. I was the eternal poacher and in fact have never held an academic job with a staight disciplinary title.

My next book, a biography of Oswald Mosley, required no more than the primitive economics I had picked up from Marty Feldstein, but beyond Mosley there was the moutain peak of Keynes. I was determined that a life of Keynes should complete the trilogy started with Politicians and the Slump. I had signed up for this project with my usual insouciance, promising my publisher Macmillan delivery in a couple of years. This was in 1970. It was only when I started reading the General Theory, that the penny dropped. I didn’t understand a word of it. There was no history, politics, no policy to giver me a hook: it was pure theory. I realised that a good book on Keynes was beyond my reach, certainly in the time I had promised. There was no way I could fake the economics. I had to understand them. And I wanted to understand them.

I don’t want to drift into describing my work on Keynes. Rather , what I want to do is to say something about my encounter with economics and what I got out of it. I audited some courses in macroeconomics while teaching the United States in the 1970s. But my serious archival and intellectual work on Keynes started only when I got back to England, and more especially when I was appointed professor of international studies at Warwick University in 1978.

I now acquired two superb teachers. The first was Nicholas Kaldor, professor of economics at Cambridge University. I got to know him in the mid 1960s, but we only started talking about economics ten years later and went on till he died in 1986. Or rather, he went on talking about economics, and I went on listening. I have never met anyone with such a strong didactic stamina. And this was despite the fact that he frequently fell asleep during what I will call my ‘supervisions’, waking up a few moments later to continue his exposition at the exact point he had left off. Nicky had an apparently inexhaustible urge to put the world right in general, and me right in particular. He was then embarked on his last great battle against an evil sect of heretics called ‘monetarists’, led by someone he called ‘ little Milton Friedman’ – a reference to Friedman’s height, rather than his brain, though Nicky himself was by no means tall, if quite ample. The idea that the central bank could control the supply of money was so intellectually disreputable, Nicky told me, that it must hide a project too wicked to be openly avowed. Nicky had no doubt what this was: it was to smash the trade unions and restore the power of the bosses by creating mass unemployment. That is why Mrs. Thatcher and the Tories had converted to monetarism.

I didn’t buy all of this. But I knew that Keynes had been a monetarist before he became a Keynesian, and so I was often able to steer Nicky’s phillipics against monetarism towards a history of the Keynesian Revolution, through which he had lived, and whose battles he recalled in splendid detail. A surprising feature in someone so fervently convinced that the Keynesians were on the side of the angels was the marked respect in which he held Friedrich Hayek, who had been his professor at the LSE, in sharp contrast to ‘little Milton Friedman’ whom he once likened to Hitler.

My second guide to the world of economics was Ian Little, who had recently given up a chair of economics at Oxford. I have no doubt that Ian too believed in the vocation of economics to improve the world, but he was a much more laid back character than Nicky. What chiefly emerged from my conversations with him –and his comments on what I wrote – was a passion for clear thinking and lucid expression-the main features of his own work. Economics was for him, above all, a branch of logic, and he could have easily been a professional philosopher. Like Keynes, he didn’t know at first whether he wanted to be a philosopher or economist. The reason he gave for choosing economics is characteristic of him: ‘Although I was more confident in philosophy than economics, it seemed to me at the time that philosophers were cleverer than economists, and the competition would therefore be more severe’.

Ian’s chief influence on me was to alert me, and make me aspire, to a style of exact reasoning which had no counterpart in history or the other social sciences, whose assertions, conjectures, and arguments he would greet with a quizzical, disbelieving look and shrug of shoulders. ‘An absolute disgrace that X should hold a chair in economics’ he once muttered, after listening to a woolly lecture by a famous political economist. An excellent bridge player, Ian had no doubt that when it came to clear thinking, philosophy and economics held all the trumps.

Nicky, Ian and I all had houses in the Provencal village of La Garde Freinet. The two economists did not get on well personally or intellectually. Nicky was a Protectionist and Ian a free trader. One day –this must have been in the late 1970s - we were all having lunch with another expatriate called Lady Jane Heaton. Nicky and Ian got involved in a furious argument about trade theory. Ricardo’s theory, Nicky, insisted, assumed constant returns to scale, and was invalid if there were ‘increasing returns’. No, it didn’t replied Ian, and wasn’t. The argument was completely incomprehensible to the other guests, but this in no way deterred them from banging on. Lady Jane sat between them with a glazed expression, sipping pastise, and labelling out bowls of soup from a large tureen.

This revelation of quarrels between economists which seemed much more theological than scientific dented my faith in economics as a science of progress. Was economics not a new kind of metaphysics masquerading as a science? Could my allegiance to my new faith be anything other than highly qualified?

Let me try to sum up these reservations.. Economists often present themselves as engaged in discovering truths about something ‘out there’ called the economy. The process is not easy because the economy can change in unpredictable ways. As Meryvn King put it in last year’s Mais Lecture ‘A crucial difference between economic and, say, metereological analysis is that in economics there are no natural constants..[So] our understanding of the economy is incomplete and constantly evolving...’ Nevertheless, economics uses the same methods of investigation as do the natural sciences.. Economists develop hypotheses about the world and test them statistically. The more precisely stated the hypotheses, and the more sophisticated the tests, the greater will be the rate of discovery. The greater the rate of discovery the better (more efficient) will be economic institutions and policies, and the faster will be growth of welfare. So economics is the midwife of material progress. True enough, there are other social sciences, but in their search for truth they are cripplingly handicapped by their inability to formulate precise hypotheses and to test them convincingly. So economics is left as the only ‘hard’ social science, the only one which promises social progress. This kind of claim underlies the ‘imperialism of economics’: its colonisation of disciplines like political science, history, and education. (However, economics itself is being challenged by developments in biology and neuro-psychology).

I came to see much of this picture as false for the following reasons:

Firstly, the idea that there is something out there called ‘the economy’ which economists ‘discover’ falls foul of the fact that beliefs (or expectations) influence what happens; and what happens influences beliefs. What George Soros calls ‘reflexivity’ is simply a recognition of the fact that the existence of a forecast alters behaviour so as to cause the forecast to be either false or true. Recognition that the world is not invariant to our gaze knocks out the idea that economics is a natural science.

Second, what economists call discovering a ‘correct model’ of the economy largely consists of inventing a model and then persuading people to behave as though it were true. To the extent that they are so persuaded, the model is self-validating; this makes the task of controlling the economy easier. But the process is circular. It tells us little about the world ‘out there’, a great deal about how intellectual authority gets established.

Third, the chief source of authority in economics is mathematics. Mathematics is hailed as critical to the process of discovery, but its main use, it seems to me, is to establish the the intellectual authority of economists. (I say this with some feeling because my maths was never nearly good enough for economics. I did try to improve it, but that is another story, best told by my wife.) Economists use mathematics in an attempt to make precise what is necessarily vague. Keynes famously said, ‘It is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong’. Most economists would disagree. They might agree that it is better to be precisely right than precisely wrong, but better to be precisely wrong than vaguely right, because only a precise hypthesis can give rise to a precise (testable) counter-hypothesis. Progress is assured if each successive hypothesis is only marginally less wrong than its predecessor. This is fine if one forgets that economics is a policy-machine, and that immense damage can be done by applying policies which are ‘precisely wrong’ rather than ‘vaguely right’.

Most economists I know suffer from ‘mathematics anxiety’, the fear that their maths is not up to scratch. Most of their time is spent acquiring and then maintaining their mathematical techniques in competitive readiness. This has a doubly crippling effect on their creativity: they have little time to think about much else and they are forced to repress any intuitions that are not mathematically tractable. All writing for newspapers carries a risk to academic reputation, but academic economists have virtually stopped addressing the public, since they dare not to think outside their mathematical boxes.

Fourth, economics is, as it has always been, based on a very simple, a-historical, a-social view of human nature: that human behaviour is driven by rational self-interest, that individuals are continually engaged in something called ‘maximising their utilities’ subject, of course, to a ‘budget constraint’, and that rationality is a property of the indvidual alone. These propositions have been repeatedly challenged, not only from outside but from within the profession, but the whole logical edifice of economics rests on their acceptance. (One can think of an alternative edifice, but this would involve wholesale reconstruction of the discipline.) Anyone who starts from a different reading of human nature is bound to come into conflict with the economic perspective. At the very least one might think that what Einstein called the ‘human lust for violence and destruction’ makes predictions based on rational calculation very shaky.

The Keynesian Revolution was undermined by economics’ charter myth, because it could never explain properly how unemployment could persist (or even arise) in a society consisting of utility maximising individuals. This premise led by an inexorable chain of logic to the view that unemployment was impossible, and then to a great deal of fancy mathematical foot work in order to reconcile the logic with the facts.

I hope Marcus Miller will not mind me telling the following story. I hold him in great affection, and my best economic conversations in the Department were with him.

We were discussing an article he was writing in response to one on the return to the gold standard in 1925. Two economists had argued that expectation of a return to gold at the pre-war parity had caused sterling to weaken and not strengthen. The implication was that sterling was undervalued in 1925, not overvalued, as Keynes had claimed, and as everyone had always believed. Their argument was based on the assumption of full employment and flexible prices.

Marcus proposed to accept their assumption of flexible prices and their fancy techniques of stochastic process-switching and show that, nonetheless, anticipation of the return to gold could raise and not lower the price of sterling. I said: ‘Why not allow for uncertainty, sticky prices, and unemployment, and you’ll have a story much more congruent with the facts’.Marcus was unhappy about what he was doing. He had published an earlier response, on Keynesian lines, which had fallen flat. Now he replied: ‘If I do what you suggest, no one will take my refutation seriously. You have to accept the premises, and then show the conclusion doesn’t follow’. It seems to me that a discipline which expects someone to work with premises he knows to be false in order to get a hearing has reached an advanced stage of introversion.

I was writing my second, theoretical volume on Keynes, while the Thatcher Revolution was going on, and my ambivalence about economics was paralleled by my ambivalence about Thatcherism. On the one hand, I was attracted by the idea of the sharp-edged axe being applied to the jungle of inefficient practices which constituted the British economy of the time; on the other hand, I felt that many of these practices were constitutive of human nature, and indeed of what one meant by ‘society’, whose existence Mrs. Thatcher famously denied.

Fifth, economics is formally indifferent to ends. Unlike classical economics, modern economics doesn’t depend on psychological hedonism. An agent’s utility can be interpreted any way one wants. St. Francis of Assissi’s utility may have consisted in dressing lepers’ wounds, but so long as there was a shortage of bandages an economic problem would have arisen for him All that economics says is: ‘If you –the individual, the nation, the world –wants to achieve your goal,(whatever it is) here’s the most efficient way to do it’. Implicitly though, it is very prescriptive, because it works through the measuring rod of money. There is thus an almost irresistable slippage from the logic of utility maximisation to the logic of wealth accumulation. Basically, economics is about how to make money in the most efficient way: this is particularly true of business studies, which is now its most popular branch. Economists’ protests that their discipline is neutral between different ends always sounds hollow. It’s as though an instructor on a training course for criminals said ‘I am completely neutral on the question of whether it is desirable for you to embark on a criminal career’.

To sum up: I have come to see the specific virtue of economics as a kind of mental hygiene, offering a powerful antidote to sloppy thinking. I don’t believe that there is anything out there waiting to be discovered: but I do think there is a great deal waiting to be invented, and economics is a very inventive social science. It generates beliefs which push people towards certain patterns of behaviour just like any other set of beliefs, by promising pay-offs, good or bad. Sincee the patterns of behaviour to wish it pushes people are ‘better’ than some other patterns, including some of those revealed by the study of histor, I believe that, on balance, it has done good. If history tends to negative thinking about the human condition, economics tends to positive thinking. But economics, I concluded, was not enough. One could only have a hope of finding a clue to the riddle of existence, or more mundanely, a guide to good policy if one was one was, like Keynes, ‘more than an economist’.

In the upshot, I could no more give my full allegiance to economics than I could to history. I find myself in a curious no-man’s land. When I am with historians I think like an economist. When I am with economists, I think like a historian.The chair I am retirng from is in political economy, but I resist describing myself as a political economist, because too often it is a refuge for those who lack competence in both economics and politics. So, if push comes to shove, I will call myself an economically literate historian, rather than a historically literate economist. However, let me in closing make the case that both sorts of creature should be ethically literate.

I am prompted to this by the recent vogue for ‘happiness’. Economists have belatedly come to notice what all non-economists have instinctively known: that beyond a certain point greater wealth does not make people happier. So some now propose to make ‘happiness’ rather than ‘GDP’ the measure of ‘well-being’. In the academic world, Richard Layard is the most recent example, but Andrew Oswald of our Department has also made a notable contribution. David Cameron is the first major political leader to have taken up this tune, and no doubt Tony Blair will soon be humming it. .A famous headmaster has just started a course called ‘happiness studies’. The idea is: let’s try to make people happier rather than richer.

Happiness certainly sounds ethically better than riches. But the discussion fails for two reasons. First, whereas we think we know how to make people wealthier, we have very little idea of what will make them happier. So ‘weath’ will continue to be a proxy for ‘happiness’ unless or until enough people revolt against it. The second problem is the confusion between what is desired and what is desirable. Of any state of affairs that makes people happy it remains meaningful to ask: is it good? If sitting in front of a computer screen downloading pornographic images –as millions of our fellow citizens seem to like doing – makes people happy, then they are presumed by economists to be revealing their preferences. If this is what they prefer to listening to Verdi or earning more money, or making war, that is the end of it. Neither economics (nor for that matter history) has anything further to say. But this position is ethically illiterate. A tradition of ethical reasoning running from the Greek concept of ‘eudaimonia’ through Christianity to Kant and modern Platonists like G.E.Moore, who had a big influence on Keynes, has sought to distinguish the objectively desirable life from the subjective feeling of happiness. Happiness can be part of the good life, but it cannot constitute it.

This is not a plea to make economics or history a branch of ethics. What I would like to revive is the old idea that the specialised subjects be built on the foundation of the moral sciences; that before students start on their courses of history, economics, geography, climatology, politics, sociology, psychology, or whatever they take a foundation course in ethics. To make students ethically aware was the original purpose, as I understand it, of the Greats and Modern Greats Schools at Oxford; and of the ‘Great Books’ programmes of American liberal arts colleges, caricatured as ‘From Plato to Nato’. And if such a foundation course delays students getting to grips with their future subjects, this is an adjustment to increased life expectancy which a rich society can easily afford.(4760)

It would be wrong to close without thanking that magnificent institution of higher learning, the University of Warwick. Rarely can a scholar have been treated as generously as Warwick has treated me. With out all those study leaves and special leaves, the trilogy on Keynes, which is my academic monument, could never have been written. This generosity was primarily due to the four vice chancellors under whom I have had the honour to serve: Jack Butterworth, Clark Brundin, Brian Follett, and David Vanderlinde who is hosting this occasion. With their names I must couple that of Mike Shattock, the University Registrar during most of my time; Barry Buzan and Charles Jones, my first colleagues in international studies, who might reasonably have revolted against the exorbitant demands put on them, in a tiny department, by my absences; and Mark Harrison, chair of the Economics Department, who had the idea of arranging this event. I am particularly glad that Lady Butterworth has been able to come. Her husband laid the foundations for the great university Warwick has become.

Looking back over my 28 years at Warwick, my overwhelming feeling is that everyone treated me much better than I deserved. I could mention my friends, recall my best conversations, and generally wallow in nostalgia. But I have already gone on for too long. I can’t resist, though a short quote from the diary I kept for most of my time at Warwick. This entry is dated 31 March 1989:

Replied to Enoch Powell at Warwick. I asked him whether he thought he should have gone back to academic life after the war. ‘They would have eaten me alive. I was far too good a teacher’. [Presumably he was referring to the anticipated jealousy of colleagues rather than to reactions of the students.] He spoke for 50 minutes with great intensity and without a note.At one point he exclaimed dramatically ‘You see before you a dead man..a man who has lost his sole reason for living: membership of the House of Commons’.

Much though I will miss Warwick I am not yet dead, and indeed look forward to many more years of active life. I suppose I will drift back to my first love, history, though my encounter with economics will have left a permanent mark. My final thanks go to the University for giving me such a spacious opportunity to think and write, to the Vice Chancellor for hosting this event, and to all of you for coming.

Robert Skidelsky 31 May 2006.

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